Labour’s promised $25 border levy, money from the new $1bn regional fund, working with industry on immigration and work visas, and dealing with freedom camping, are all on the agenda for the new Minister of Tourism.
Kelvin Davis says it is still early days with the details of Labour’s plans for the sector yet to be fleshed out, however, one thing is clear – the border levy will be implemented to provide $75m in annual funding for tourism.
“Absolutely, absolutely,” says the new minister and MP for the northern Māori seat of Te Tai Tokerau. “We will be using it for our Tourism and Conservation Infrastructure Fund. We have got to make sure tourism is well supported.”
Davis says the border levy proposal has survived coalition negotiations with NZ First, which does not support the tax and prefers to return tourist GST to the regions in which it was spent.
The minister does not rule out NZ First’s plan but says the new Cabinet is expected to back Labour’s $25 border levy to raise $75m annually for redistribution to tourism infrastructure, training, and conservation.
“We know the regions need improved tourism infrastructure from toilet facilities to carparks to telecommunications,” he says.
“We want to make sure money is spent wisely and our image overseas is maintained. We will be working with those in the sector to see where the money needs to go to make sure we get the best bang for our buck.”
There is no timetable yet for the border levy’s implementation with details to be worked out in the months ahead.
Money from the $1bn annual Regional Development Fund is another avenue for infrastructure finance and tourism development.
“Tourism is surely going to get a slice of that and I will be advocating hard for it,” says Davis.
“Shane Jones is the minister in charge of that fund – I think he is the most popular man in NZ at the moment – and I will be in tight with him as soon as I can to make sure tourism gets a fair share.”
Davis says he recognises the importance of the environment to the industry, particularly waterways, but it is still too early to reveal the specifics of any plans although Labour’s election manifesto called for a carbon neutral sector and increased electrification of vehicles.
However, freedom camping is one issue he will readily address.
“I can’t stand it when people are doing their business behind trees. It just spoils the experience for everybody who comes across that sort of thing. We have come across this ourselves up north – people who are freedom camping and leave a mess behind them – so, it is something that needs to be looked at,” he says.
“If the current laws are not effective then we will have another look and do what needs to be done. We want people to get out and enjoy our countryside but there has to be respect as well for our natural environment.”
On work visas, an issue that has raised industry concerns because of Labour’s plans to cut annual immigration by 20,000-30,000 from the current 72,000, Davis wants to reassure the sector.
“We will be working with the industry on the skills and strategy it needs [and] we understand that there are concerns. We don’t want to leave the tourism industry dangling – we want it to be able to find workers where and when it wants.
“Ideally, we would love locals to have first dibs [on jobs] but if not then we will work with the industry to make sure it has the workers it needs.”
One issue that has been bandied about since the Ministry of Tourism was absorbed by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment in 2012, is the return of a tourism department to government.
Given the sector’s value and its broad and deep connections to other parts of the economy and to the regions, surely it is time to reinstate the Ministry?
“I get what people are saying, since it is so important to NZ, do we need a standalone Ministry of Tourism? That argument needs to be had around the Cabinet table but if there’s a real drive from people in the industry for that to occur, then I’ll be happy to have that debate with my colleagues,” says Davis.
“I really want to work with the industry to see what it believes would be the best thing for it and if that is one of the ideas then I will take it to Cabinet and see what comes out of it.”
Davis is also Minister for Crown/Māori Relations, a newly-created role designed to manage the government’s ongoing relationship with iwi post-Treaty of Waitangi settlement.
“Obviously, being Māori, I’m aware of how the Māori identity is an attraction to our visitors but also the Crown/Māori Relations portfolio is about working with iwi who have had their Treaty settlements finalised and settled,” he says.
“A lot of these iwi will be looking at how they can get into the tourism market and there are obviously connections there that can and need to be made. How does the tourism industry leverage off our Māori culture and how do Māori leverage off tourism? I think it’s a symbiotic relationship that we need to nurture.”
On there being no associate minister for tourism, a role previously filled by National’s Nicky Wagner and one that some in the industry believe the sector deserves, Davis says he is unsure of why the position hasn’t been reassigned.
“I don’t know why but if it’s something that needs to be looked at then I can talk to the Prime Minister. We’ll have to wait and see what the workload is like but, if needed, I’m prepared to have that conversation with the PM.”
As for the many industry issues bubbling away in the sector from tourism development in Christchurch’s Red Zone to iwi licenses for the use of Lake Tāupo, Davis says: “I am sure all of those things will come across my table at some stage but I’ve yet to have a meeting with the officials who support [the Tourism Minister]. No doubt, all of those issues will be put in front of me.”
He is not a novice to the sector though and comes to the minister’s role armed with his experience as Labour’s tourism spokesperson from 2009-2011.
“It’s a portfolio I absolutely loved and I’m well aware of the importance of tourism to NZ and how much it contributes to our GDP and the number of people employed in the sector,” he says.
“I want to be a minister that listens to the people in the industry and finds out what needs to be done to make sure that we continue growing. We will do everything we can to make sure that tourism continues to be the jewel in NZ’s crown.”